Advertisements for cell phone companies and the features they offer make one thing abundantly clear -- mobile communications are primarily designed for, and driven by, young people. But what about older consumers? Senior citizens appear to be the one market that cell phone companies have missed.
GreatCall co-founders Cooper & Harris
"In the early days, cell phones were easy to use. As cellular went digital, great things started to happen. But all this new technology left a very large segment of the population behind," said Arlene Harris, CEO and co-founder of GreatCall, Inc., which last month introduced a cell phone service called Jitterbug, designed especially for seniors.
While traditional cell phones allow users to send text messages, take pictures, listen to music and change ring tones daily, GreatCall prides itself on the bare bones, simple nature of its service. Instead of being part of the user's daily life, it is a lifeline to be used only in emergencies, or other rare occasions.
Rather than the dizzying array of handsets offered by traditional mobile phone companies, GreatCall's Jitterbug offers just two phones, both designed for technology-averse seniors.
The phones are both made by Samsung and are identical, expect for one important feature. One phone has a traditional telephone key pad, with oversized buttons and an easy-to-read screen.
The second has only three large buttons. One is programmed to call 911, one is programmed to call a family member or neighbor and the third is programmed to call an operator. The user simply pushes the button to connect to an operator, who will place the call for the user.
When activating a Jitterbug phone, the user will hear a dial tone -- something most seniors are accustomed to hearing when using a phone but something absent from today's cell phones. The company cites research showing older consumers would use cell phones if they were simpler to operate.
In a recent analysis of the new Jitterbug service, the Telecommunications Research and Action Center questioned the costs associated with the new service. It noted that the handset is expensive -- $147. It also questioned fees associated with the various calling plans, which offer few monthly minutes.
Compared to offerings by traditional mobile phone companies like Verizon and Cingular, the costs are indeed slightly higher. Motorola's popular Razor Phone normally lists for $100, though there are plenty of phones available as low as $19.95, with a two-year agreement.
Costs of the handset aside, the monthly cost of a Jitterbug is well below both Verizon Wireless' and Cingular's least expensive plans. While the latter assume their users will make maximum use of their phones, Jitterbug assumes its customers will make calls only rarely.
The lowest price Jitterbug plan is $10 a month with no minutes included. The user is charged $.35 a minute for air time. It is called the "basic emergency" package, meaning users are expected to call only when they have to. For $15 a month the user gets 30 "anytime" minutes.
Compare that to the lowest priced individual plans offered by both Verizon Wireless and Cingular. Both companies offer an individual plan that includes 450 monthly "anytime" minutes for $39.99. With a family plan that already has two phones, a third can be added for an additional $9.99 a month.
Still, TRAC remains skeptical, accusing the company of being "light on details" and expressing concern that Jitterbug is not sold in stores. If there are any customer service problems, they must be dealt with online or by phone.
Harris and her husband and co-founder Martin Cooper have won praise from some seniors advocates and both are approaching senior citizen-hood themselves. Both also have long careers in the industry.
Cooper is widely recognized as a pioneer and inventor in the personal and wireless telecommunications industry. He introduced the first portable cellular radiotelephone in 1973 -- and his resume says he is cited in the Guinness Book of World Records for making the first cellular phone call.
Harris has 35 years in the industry and has seen a lot of change. But with Jitterbug, she says, she's borrowing a lot of older technology that today's young people might find quaint, but the older generation might find comforting.
"With Jitterbug, we're going back to some high-quality, old-fashioned ways of doing things," she said, "very much like it was when I was manning the switchboards to connect people at my family's communications business in the 1950's. We're committed to getting it right."